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Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Power Endurance (Part 6)

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

Part 1:


“I can do all the moves but I just can’t seem to put them together.”

Welcome to sport climbing!

This situation crops up as a major source of difficulty – particularly on projects – for so many sport climbers. And we’re quick to label the source of our problem as “power endurance,” saying how if only our power endurance was better, we’d be sending (ah, yes, but then we’d probably only be lured onto the next route, maybe something a bit harder, with moves that felt doable and again struggle to put them together, right?).

This is so often the challenge of sport climbing: We may have the power to do all the individual moves in a sequence, and we might even be able to string some of them together, but if they cumulatively dig too deeply into our power base, we simply cannot put them all together – we can’t send. Even more infuriating for some climbers is the fact that these series of moves by themselves might not even feel all that hard – so what’s the problem here, and more importantly, what can we do to make it better?

In this next series of entries, I’ll do my best to make sense of this actually rather complex concept and provide insights on how to train to improve it. The series after this lengthy dip into power endurance will discuss its closely related companion, muscular/high-intensity endurance (in other words, the kind of endurance most often needed to succeed on difficult sport-climbing efforts). It’s often hard to distinguish clearly between the two. However, in the end, the labeling doesn’t matter so much as the comprehension of how to most efficiently and effectively recognize weaknesses and train to improve them in both of these departments.

Let’s open this discussion by defining our term.

Power endurance in climbing is term/concept that’s bandied about in sport-climbing circles, but it’s hard to get a precise or consistent answer about what, exactly, we mean by power endurance. I think we often say “power endurance” imprecisely, using it as a catchall term for many of our failures on routes, whether they’re truly about our power endurance, or in reality more about our absolute power, or our ability to shake out and recover on holds, or our ability to not have relatively easy climbing turn into a power-depletion situation more quickly than it should given our actual power level. I also think power endurance is one of the hardest areas to really be concise about in discussing aspects of sport climbing and climbing training, given the variability of climbing terrain and angles and the fact that no two climbs, or climbers for that matter, are the same.

To help come up with a working definition, I’ll start (and leave you for today) with the definition given in Sport Fitness Advisor’s article called “Muscular Endurance Training” (which is worth reading in its entirety as well):

“Power endurance is typically characterized by intense, repeated efforts for a relatively short period of time (less than 30 seconds)… Once maximal strength has been developed (earlier on in the annual strength program) it can be converted into explosive power through various methods of power training. Now power endurance training can be used to train the fast twitch fibres to resist fatigue allowing explosive power to be maintained for longer.”

Part 2:

In my previous entry, I began this series of entries on power endurance for climbing by providing a starting definition of the term, as given in Sport Fitness Advisor’s (SFA) article called “Muscular Endurance Training” (which, as I mentioned, is worth reading in its entirety, if you haven’t already).

Here it is again:

“Power endurance is typically characterized by intense, repeated efforts for a relatively short period of time (less than 30 seconds)… Once maximal strength has been developed (earlier on in the annual strength program) it can be converted into explosive power through various methods of power training. Now power endurance training can be used to train the fast twitch fibres to resist fatigue allowing explosive power to be maintained for longer.”


This definition works pretty well for our discussion of power endurance. SFA goes on to stipulate that to train power endurance with weights, an athlete would perform 15 to 30 reps at 50 to 70 percent of their 1 repetition maximum, as this amount of reps would likely fall within the 30-seconds-or-less parameter.

But SFA also mentions the importance of specificity of training, i.e. replicating the circumstances/demands placed on the body by the sport. This can and will at times conflict with the less-than-30-seconds concept for sport climbing, since some sport-climbing sequences with little or no rest inherently take us longer than 30 seconds of nearly continuously powerful movement – sometimes up to 2 or 3 minutes, depending on the climber and their capacity for power endurance/other strengths and weaknesses that come into play.

In other words, climbing can force us (or some of us) to remain in a state of performing constant or near-constant, power-sapping motions for longer than 30 seconds – even when we’re “only” performing around 30 rest-less, strength/power-sapping moves or moves that we perceive as powerful because of where they fall in the sequence or as consistently powerful – i.e., challenging to our power endurance. Depending on a person’s particular strengths and weaknesses, these types of sequences of moves can often lead to a feeling of being ridiculously pumped (whether in the forearms or elsewhere) or utterly powered out, or a little (or a lot) of both.

If you continue on in SFA’s article mentioned above, you encounter the next concept – short-term muscular endurance – which is explained as a lower-power output of consistent, muscularly taxing movements for 30 seconds to 2 minutes at 40 to 60 percent of an athlete’s 1-rep max.

Is this also part of what we mean when we say “power endurance” as sport climbers? My answer would be “yes, sometimes” – though some may beg to differ and place this squarely in the “climbing endurance” column. But the problem with this trying to compartmentalize these concepts separately is that it’s really hard to be so systemic when we talk about the power output involved in a long series of sport climbing moves, because it’s rarely so consistent – meaning you might do three moves at 40 percent of your power followed by a move at 90 percent followed by a move at 60 percent followed by 3 moves at 50 percent and so on – and those percentages don’t reflect a single muscle or muscle group, either – they usually tax your body with extreme variability from move to move, until one (or more) body part fatigues and fails you.

So where do you draw the line between power endurance and endurance, in terms of hard sport climbing?

Honestly, you don’t really have to, and it’s a blurry line for us at best. Because our sport is acyclical (meaning multiple different, complex movements done in quick succession instead of the same repetitive movement or close to it over and over again, at least for most sport climbs/climbing areas), we’ll be dishing out more or less power-per-move as needed – but hopefully, when our power endurance and our endurance are both trained up and at a good level for us (given our current peak strength/power levels), we’ll regularly be able to deliver just the right amount of effort needed for each move – i.e. we’ll have the power to perform powerful (for us) sequences of continuous moves with no real places to stop and shake out, even if the power dished out for each move in the sequence varies, as it usually does.


Part 3:

SAID and the overload principle work best (meaning they’re both efficient and effective) for training my power endurance, much in the same way that climbing-specific conversion-to-power training helps to build up climbing-specific power. To train power endurance, I work on long, challenging sequences that don’t involve any real rests or shake outs for me, series of consistently powerful and often technical movements on climbs that require constant or near constant movements that fall into the power-endurance range I described in the last two entries (8ish to 30ish moves that last from less than 30 seconds to 2 or 3 minutes).

So, for example, one power-endurance project might involve 17 extremely powerful moves with no shake, followed by some easier climbing to the anchors where I can shake out on pretty much every other move. Another route could have 30 moves, then a shake, then 15, then a shake, then 10, then some miscellaneous climbing that is much easier and has a bunch of shakes. And yet another might feature 20 steep, explosive and powerful moves with no real shake, then 8, then 10. During the “counted” sequences of moves on all of these routes (which would all ideally be on different angles with different types of holds and styles of movement), I’d be putting out really powerful efforts for me on nearly every single move, with no pausing or stopping during the sequences to shake out while moving through these sections – even the clips are part of the movements.

These routes would all require power endurance – and if they’re my redpoint projects, they’ll serve me well both for training purposes and for performance, actually. Working on power endurance hurts physically, it’s hard mentally (I often feel like I’m falling off for much of each sequence but have to just force my body to continue putting forth the effort for each unbelievable move in the sequence), and it takes time to build up – as in, if I add one or two moves a day to each sequence, that’s real progress. I also have to make sure to take enough rest between days of climbing to effect positive changes in my body. Too much quantity, volume or frequency can all sabotage the efforts to build power endurance up to a high level – as with all training efforts. Quality and intensity count for way more.

If I were stronger and therefor able to generate more power, would these routes dig into my power endurance so much? No way…of course not. At some higher level of strength and power, my projects would be gentle warm-ups, maybe giving a slight pump in the body or forearms or both. If I were much stronger and more powerful, so long as I had decent endurance for that higher power/strength level, I’d probably also not feel so pushed to keep moving consistently through these sequences – i.e. not on the clock so much. I might be able to shake out each hand in between the moves or even shake on a hold that would never serve me as a rest now. More likely, though, I’d find the climbing so easy that I’d just walk through it without noticing any real power output – in other words, it’d be so far from taking any real portion of my power that it’d just be a vague endurance drain.


Nonetheless, could someone stronger/more powerful than me fail on these routes due to a) a lack of power endurance or b) a lack of endurance or c) another issue? Of course! I’ve actually seen this happen – and it’s usually a clear indicator (so long as mental issues aren’t in play) that a person lacks either power endurance or endurance or a bit (or more!) of both…plus they may possibly have less efficiency of movement, too (technical issues), particularly when tiredness sets in.

Again, this illustrates how sport climbing is so individual that it’s really hard to be precise for everyone about where the point of failure is. This is why I’d encourage you, if you care about training your weaknesses and want to see improvements, to really pay attention to why you fall and what the point of failure is right after it happens – and to ask your partners for feedback, too, on this. It’s not always what you think, especially if you’ve never paid close attention before. When I fall, I try to always feel pleased if I tried my hardest – as it’s a really depressing game if you’re constantly po’ed about falling (and you’ll never push your limits, besides) – but I also always try to immediately do a body scan and an instant replay of the failure in my brain, to try to sort out what went wrong. I also always ask my partner what it looked like, just to double-check my own assessment.

Part 4:

A major part of our efforts when training power endurance, then, especially if we have specific routes we want to redpoint in mind or at the very least specific holds or angles of climbing we want to train for (for an area or for competitions or both), should be spent in replicating as close as possible exactly what it is we want to accomplish in performance – we need to teach our bodies what needs to happen on these routes in particular, through repetition within reason. This often involves pushing ourselves into an area of physical discomfort, one where we walk the fine line between falling and staying on, as we fight to push our bodies through each sequence of movements, through each interval (and this offers a great time to work on breathing and pacing, too), and then to rest, recover, and continue climbing, if it’s required of us for our goal(s).

If you’re not trying routes that put you into this state of being, you’re not actively working your power endurance through climbing (which I think is generally far more efficient than trying to break it up and work it separately in pieces). Yes, there are exercises, including lifting and other resistance workouts that you can use, to train parts of the climbing power endurance equation, for sure. They can be effective, too – especially if crucial areas that you want to build power endurance up in for future routes aren’t getting the work needed through your actual current climbing efforts (like you’re maxing out your bigger muscle groups before your forearms ever get worked, or vice versa), or if you happen NOT to be pushing your power endurance at all or not at a high level when you climb routes (if you’re working a boulder problem to easier climbing style of route, or a route that involves easy climbing to a rest, then a boulder problem, for example).


How can you tell if this is the case – if you’re not actually taxing and challenging your power endurance on the climbs you’re trying right now? I suggest you start by counting moves, as I obviously do these days. If you’re working on a project or a few projects, this should be easy to do – but this gets us into memorizing routes and visualizing, topics of yet another training blog, which apparently I’m going to be writing for the rest of my life, at this point – there are just too many areas to talk about!

In a nutshell, though, if you count the moves you have to do in a row that require a serious and consistent power output (for you, meaning that all or most the moves feel difficult) with no real stop-‘n’-shake/regrouping spots in between, and they number more than 8 to 10 up to about 30 (as a loose and very debatable ballpark), you are doing sequences that work your power endurance. In other words, you’re training your power endurance through climbing.

Part 5:

No matter your potential in the power-endurance department, one of the fastest ways to run out of power endurance prematurely is to lack efficiency in movement – to have poor technical proficiency and execution (yeah, I do plan to talk about technique more specifically in a few of these entries…soon).

This is the part of redpointing that involves smoothing out the lumps and working on the delivery of precise movements with no wasted effort. As we train this, we develop greater and greater neuromuscular coordination, meaning that through repetition of specific sequences of movements, we become smoother and smoother with fewer and fewer movement errors, because our body learns how to recruit and coordinate motor units more accurately. Depending on how long we work a route, we may/can also actually build more physical power for specific moves, and we can and do definitely improve our power endurance and endurance (in terms of pure physical gains), for sure.

However, a good portion of the improvement we see comes also from our improved neuromuscular capabilities – from us taking the time to mold our strength into usable skills on the rock. It’s similar to a dancer perfecting a dance, really – it looks beautiful and effortless when all the steps flow together seamlessly, when the neuromuscular adaptations have occurred and the performance is flawlessly executed.

Did the dancer start out being strong enough to perform all of the steps by themselves? Probably – or at least strong enough for most of them, and close to strong enough for the possible few that he or she wasn’t quite strong enough for at first. But molding that strength through repetition is what makes for near-perfection in movement — and building up the power endurance to sustain that fluid, technical precision and consistent power output through a series of difficult movements is a part of that process of gaining near-perfection.

This touches upon another facet of power endurance training — the facet that involves training the mind to maintain control of the body when the body is being taxed near its limits. I’ll talk more about mental aspects of climbing in another entry, but I wanted to mention this here – you have to have the ability to push hard and stay in control of your movements even when your brain screams, “I can’t!” because your body so often can do more moves even when your mind tells you it can’t on some level.

Being able to intelligently override those messages of premature failure/fatigue is a key part of really capitalizing on your full capability of power endurance (and endurance) potential. You don’t want to push to injury, of course. However, my experience has been that if I can quell the voices of doubt and just let my body climb, I can often do way more moves than my mind thinks I can. I still hear the doubting voice, but I just choose to ignore it and keep climbing. It’s always (still) a wild experience for me, as I more often than not do way more moves than my mind thinks I’m going to be able to complete.

~ Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador

Learn more about Alli

Alli Rainey (allirainey.com) discovered rock climbing more than 20 years ago, and it has been a driving passion in her life ever since. After incurring an injury that prompted her to explore training for climbing beyond just climbing itself, the results amazed her so much that she started studying the science of athletic training in earnest. This led her to become an ACTION Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and a climbing coach. Rainey is also a Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor (RYT-200) and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University. Facebook: /alliraineyclimbing; Twitter/Instagram/LinkedIn: allirainey